By Paul Dunwell, writing for EasyFrame
© Copyright EasyFrame 2019
What This Article is About
This article is about figurative portraitist Lucian Michael Freud. By the end of the 20th century he’d stepped out of the shadow of his famous grandfather, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, to become a colossus who bestrode the art-world. And such was his success that, when he died, he left £96m in his will for 10 of the 14 children that he definitely left behind. (There would have been more cash but he had apparently paid off some of his gambling debts, and he could often lose £1m a day, to one Irish bookie with 23 paintings worth £100m. There were certainly more children, but the aforementioned progeny were enough to raise an unholy hullabaloo about who got what.)
Lucian Freud was a little unusual in stylistic terms. That’s because he’s best remembered as a figurative artist, i.e. somebody who creates representations of real objects, yet early on in his career he dallied with surrealism too (by definition the surreal is not figurative and is best thought of as what we might imagine when sleep and wakefulness overlap). So he had a foot planted firmly in each camp. He’s not easy to tag but some call him ‘expressionist’. (Others called him a lot worse.)
Painting apart, he was a man whose life might similarly at first sight seem to be a mass of contradictions. Here was a German who volunteered to serve with the Merchant Navy during WW2. He had been thrown out of one school for being disruptive (driving a pack of foxhounds into a chapel during a service was the last straw). Then he burned down another (the East Anglian School of Painting, supposedly by accident). Yet Goldsmiths took him in, which was rather brave of them given his track-record. He knocked around with unsavoury disreputables such as the artist Francis Bacon, the Spectator journalist Jeffrey Bernard and the obese nightclub dancer Leigh Bowery. Freud was capable of being violent (not only did he smack Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s son in the mouth for urging him to treat his wife better, but he allegedly asked the Kray twins to beat up gossip-columnist David Litvinoff for pretending to be Freud in bars to put drinks on the artist’s tab). And he was a serial philanderer who may have sired as many as 40 children. Yet he was considered to be sufficiently ‘establishment’ to be allowed to paint the Queen (she didn’t commission him, though she acceded to his request with controversial results which she may well have regretted). And, though he was a Jew whose grandfather famously believed that God was an illusion that stemmed from an infantile need to have a father-figure, his private funeral was presided over by Rowan Williams – the Archbishop of Canterbury (a pro-homosexual pal to whom he was related via one of his love-children).
Hopefully that’s whetted your appetite. But there’s more!
Freud’s dad Ernst was an architect, and Sigmund Freud’s youngest son. Freud’s mum Lucie was an art historian and the daughter of a rich grain merchant. The family fled Germany in 1933 to avoid the wave of anti-Semitism that accompanied Hitler’s rise to power. The family was wealthy and Lucian, the middle son, was apparently a spoiled brat as well as a pretentious snob who was to spend a lot of his early adulthood drinking (and driving his Bentley erratically at speed), betting (he failed to pay gambling debts of £20,000) and poncing around in a fez and fur-coat with a bird of prey perched on his wrist.
Lucian’s younger brother was Clement Freud (who became a famous chef, writer and politician with a dour sense of humour). And it seems that they hardly spoke after, during a childhood race that Clement was winning, Lucian yelled “Stop thief!” and managed to win by default. Indeed Lucian was also estranged from his big brother Stephen, an ironmonger, until Clement died.
Lucian did know his grandfather Sigmund because the psychoanalyst used to visit London regularly for treatment when he contracted cancer.
An Odd Adult
Lucian joined the Merchant Navy when he was 20, something that might have been expected to instil a modicum of discipline in him, but he was to be invalided out after just three months. And it has been said that he was something of a ‘mummy’s boy’. He certainly spent 4,000 hours painting his mum in the 1970s (2,000 hours equate to a working year for most people).
He was always odd. Apparently he hated the telephone and could effectively only be contacted by telegram until 1982 (he must have been miffed when they were phased out). He avoided people unless it was for sex.
The oddness seems to have always been reflected in his work. Freud himself might not have been sure of what was going on in his own head, and it’s too late now to ask him. Even his grandfather might have been stumped. But it looks like he had a poor opinion of those around him, maybe of himself and his own life too.
Initially and with nobody to sit for him, Freud drew and painted inanimate objects which included dead monkeys from a local pet-shop, a stuffed zebra’s head and a palm. But that changed.
Freud frequently painted nudes yet seldom sitters who weren’t homosexual, and apparently he admired their bravery. But he wasn’t overtly gay himself, even if he found such people intriguing. Instead he as been described as ‘notoriously heterosexual’. It has been said of his style that he painted as if he were a pathologist (remember the dead monkeys?) And there is certainly an enduring impression that the models are lifeless cadavers. Freud flattered nobody. Not the Queen. And not even himself. In this respect he had much in common with Francis Bacon (with whom he was a buddy until they fell out). Both were capable of depicting human flesh, often in reds and dirty grey-whites, as if it were nothing more than meat.
Usually Freud started to draw with charcoal, working on the head first. (His ‘Large Interior W11l shows this, and interestingly here the models were family-members.) And then he’d add colour. He actually applied huge amounts of paint but used to routinely clean his brush after every single stroke. As a consequence of that some works took as long as 16 months and 2,400 hours to complete. And he would even then insist on reworking his rendition of a piece of fabric that appeared in his work if he felt he hadn’t done it justice.
Freud is considered to be one of the luminaries of the London School (which also included fellow figurative artists Francis Bacon, Reginald Gray, Robert MacBryde. Robert Colquhoun, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews. And he was a visiting tutor at the Slade School of Fine Art within University College London. In 2012 Peter Blake inserted Lucian Freud into the reprised ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ cover (go and stand in the corner with a dunce’s cap on if you didn’t realise that this was a Beatles album).
Lucian Freud’s work will endure in its popularity. And even a print is likely to retain its value.
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